Monday, April 13, 2015

"Fixing" Diversity in Science Fiction and Fantasy

A couple of months back I was on a panel at a local con titled Diversity in Fiction: What is it, How to do it, and Why. As the panelists (many of whom didn't know who else was on the panel) came in and sat down there was a bit of an awkward moment as we all recognized that the panel was basically white. But we figured we were there to talk about writing diverse characters so we'd roll with it.

But the first question came from a PoC woman in the audience who demanded with some intensity to know how we, a bunch of white folks, intended to fix the diversity problem in Science Fiction and Fantasy.

 First of all, there's a lot of factors that roll into diversity in fiction (across all genres), but there are, in my mind, three main areas of diversity in fiction. Diversity of authors, diversity of characters/setting, and diversity of readers.

On that panel, we were failing any broad representation of diversity as authors. This is not to say that our experiences, stories or voices were identical. The nature of being human means that each of has a unique voice and a story to tell, but it's fair to say we likely had more in common than not. And there was nothing we could do about that. I am a white, straight, cis, abled woman. Barring an unforeseen car accident or unlikely gamma ray mutation, I will always be a white, straight, cis, abled woman.

The only thing I can do is issue an open invitation to those who have different voices than mine to write your own stories and put them out there for the world to see. (This is one of those areas where there are other factors involved. It's not just that there aren't diverse authors; there are issues with getting ones work out there if one is not a white male. But not trying is a sure way to make certain our voices are never heard.)

I first started writing SF/F because I was frustrated that there didn't seem to be enough of the stories I really liked to read. And it wasn't that I read books by white men and thought "Ewww. This just isn't for me." (Although there were a few of those.) It was more that there were certain books that stuck with me longer, that spoke to me, personally, on a much deeper level. Almost without exception they were written or co-written by women and had female protagonists or a fairly equal mix of male and female characters in lead roles. But there were never enough of these books and it seemed like the only way to "fix" that was to write some of my own.

So, to have more diversity in the authorship, those voices who had previously been excluded or ignored must join the conversation because the rest of us cannot and should not be trying to speak in your stead.

But beyond diverse authors, there are also diverse characters and settings. And this is something everyone can participate in. Because diversity is and has been a part of human experience for thousands of years. This doesn't mean that every story has to have a broadly representative cast. It doesn't mean you should write to fill some idea of a diverse quota.

It does mean that characters can be gay or PoC or trans or differently abled and it doesn't matter whether that orientation or color has anything to do with the story. Because strong characters, the ones we remember and love and hate and dream about are the ones who are larger than their function within the story. It does mean the "rules" we tend to think of when we create a story and put together a group of characters are wide open. It does mean we think beyond our normal defaults of character and setting.

Which brings me to the third part of diversity, which is the diversity of readers. I don't know about you, but I have yet to find an author who would rather have fewer readers. But, for a variety of reasons, we have tended to write in such a way that has limited our readership by limiting the type and diversity of characters we present. And there are readers out there that figure if they aren't important enough to be represented in our fiction then clearly they aren't important enough to be a part of our readership and they will take their dollars somewhere they feel welcomed and valued. (And don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that we should be interested in diversity only because it gives us the chance to make more money. But just from a practical standpoint, limiting your readership by deliberately restricting your pool of characters is just a dumbass move.)

I would suggest the solution to this call for diversity, to "fix" the problem of homogeneity in SF/F is as follows.
1. Be certain that each of us individually is doing our best to welcome a variety of voices into the genre. (Even the grumpy old white ones and newer liberal ball-busting ones, provided that folks are still being respectful of differences. It is possible, if not always easy, to disagree about certain issues and still respect folks as individuals.)
2. Write outside the box when we sort out our characters and settings. Think a little further afield than Tolkien or Jordan. Question why you might automatically make a character white/straight/male*. Assume that unless there is a specific reason why your characters shouldn't be diverse (i.e. your fictional planet is populated by clones) that they should be more reflective of reality. 
3. Consider whether your stories are excluding portions of your potential readership. Now, I don't ever suggest writing for a specific group of people (partly because I'm bad at that), but you can certainly look to see if you have included elements that you know will be offensive or which might be less inclusive** for no reason other than that's the way it's been done before.
4. Be passionate about what you write, no matter what color or gender or orientation your characters are. Because passion for your stories and your characters is what will appeal to readers. (Not your passion or support for a blanket type of fiction because down that road lies much ickiness.)

Because love for what you do is always going to be more appealing than disgust or hatred for what anyone else does.

*There is nothing wrong with straight-white-male characters. But we've seen a lot of them already, to the point that we tend to assume they are the best protagonist for any story. By reevaluating the instinct to have our protagonists be straight-white-males we give ourselves room for stories that are less formulaic or rehashing old tropes.

**Naturally, you can't include everyone in every story. But there are ways to avoid being exclusive, whether intentionally or unintentionally, if we put a little more thought into our story and character choices rather than chugging down the same old track which has already been chugged down a million times before.


JSM said...

I agree with you 100%. Being a PoC, I've gotten very frustrated with SFF titles (and movies). We don't live in a lily-white world, so why should our created worlds be any different? I want to see more of 'me' in SFF, and I'm certain that other people would like to see more of themselves.

This was a really good post. Can I link to it from my blog (which has very few readers, I'm afraid).

A.G. Carpenter said...

Feel free to link to it. :) (I'm always happy to find out I'm not babbling into the wind.)